Saturday, June 25, 2016

Nick Didkovsky's "Pretties For You Live in NYC" DVD

As I wrote here awhile back, this show took place a couple of weeks after I missed the opportunity to see a set by the original Alice Cooper band (with a ringer in for the late Glen Buxton) at what was supposed to be a Dennis Dunaway book signing at Good Records in Dallas. NYC composer-guitarist-software programmer Nick Didkovsky, mastermind behind the $100 Guitar Project, had assembled a band to play Alice Cooper's underappreciated debut album Pretties For You in its entahrty. I'd been listening to that record (which predated my AC fandom by a couple of years) since Big Mike Richardson presented me with a copy a few months before, so my interest was piqued. When I heard the show was available on DVD, I rushed to order a copy, and it arrived in my mailbox today. (You can get one here.)

Didkovsky's work ranges from metal to experimental music to state-of-the-art music software programming, but for the Pretties For You project, he concentrated on learning and playing Glen Buxton's lead guitar parts. Michael Bruce's parts were split between guitarist Nick Oddy and keyboardist-vocalist Adam Minkoff. The rhythm section was the father and son team of drummer Glenn Johnson (a Detroit expat who gigs relentlessly with New Jersey rock and blues bands) and bassist Max Johnson (who's made waves on the NYC jazz scene), while lead vocals were handled by Paul Bertolino, who fronts the Ezrin-era AC tribute band My Stars. The PFY project benefited from the involvement and support of original Cooper band members Dunaway and Neal Smith, who helped decipher lyrics and provided advice on the AC band's equipment.

Both AC alumni were present for the performance, which capped a week-long Didkovsky residency at John Zorn's club The Stone. It's a small room, and the three-camera shoot gives the DVD a jam-room intimacy. While PFY was critically dismissed and generally ignored at the time of its release -- the band's theatrical image giving some the false impression that they couldn't play -- the song structures are complex and demanding, almost progressive, and it's a pleasure to watch Didkovsky and company tear into them with joyful abandon. Bertolino has the look of Love It To Death-era Alice down, and he and Minkoff blend their voices perfectly. Glenn Johnson's powerhouse drumming is a particular delight, but really, everyone is stupendous.

For old AC fans, the biggest treat comes at the end of the set, when Dunaway joins the band onstage, singing "Nobody Likes Me" -- an early AC number that was performed at the 1969 Toronto Rock & Roll Revival and subsequently bootlegged -- and strapping on the bass for "You Drive Me Nervous" from Killer. Bonus materials include soundcheck versions of several of the tunes, and an encore version of another Killer track, "Halo of Flies." PFY Live in NYC is a great example of rock as repertory, bringing a neglected album to life with a stunning, spirited performance that elevates the material with crackling energy. Highly recommended.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Richie Duvall and Dog Truck

(Photos stolen from eBay. Click on images to make 'em big.)

When people of A Certain Age say "Long Island rockaroll," you might think of the Young Rascals (who were from Jersey) wowing 'em with their Italo-American soul at the Barge in Westhampton Beach in '65, or the Vagrants (from Queens) making with the feedback and auto-destruction at the Northport Roller Rink in '66. Or the Vanilla Fudge, genuine Guylanders, who started out as Rascals simulacra and wound up developing a brand of heavy psychedelia that influenced Brits like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin early on. (They also played at my high school, before I was old enough to go. The next town over got the Rascals. Wha-wha.)

Fans of a more obscurantist bent might recall the Illusion -- who came out in '69 looking like the '67 ruffles-and-spangles edition of the Who, and had a national hit with "Did You See Her Eyes" -- or the Good Rats, local faves who remained active, with ever-younger family members in the lineup, until baseball bat-wielding frontman Peppi Marchello's death in 2013. (I've been amazed to find Illusion and Good Rats records in used bins in Texas.) A bit later, there were the glammier Twisted Sister ("They're No Ladies, Mister") and Zebra, as well as Genesis cover band Rat Race Choir, a couple of whose members I saw playing with John Entwistle in the late '90s.

Richie Duvall and Dog Truck -- whom I've mentioned previously in another post -- never achieved the notoriety of any of the other bands I've mentioned. But their self-titled, self-released, "non-profit record," recorded in 1973, while the principals were in high school -- has become a favorite spin of mine in my "deep listening space" o' the moment (e.g., my car). Their "half poly-precipitated jazz and half post-meditation rock," as the hand-drawn cover announces, reminds me of the moment when "jazz rock" meant something other than mere chops and exhibitionism -- and when cats a couple of years older than me (who were my biggest musical inspirations) were pulling my coat to noises more challenging than Brit invaders and blooze imitators.

Ken Duvall, Rich's brother who plays guitar on the Dog Truck album, was a guy I became aware of via Carl Johnson, the guy who first inspahrd me to want to play in a band when I saw him -- a gnomic figure in leather pants -- explode out of the wings at a middle school dance to sing "Sookie Sookie" in front of a band that was variously known as the Forbidden Past and the Cold Water. They had a "light show" that consisted of an electric fan, covered in colored cellophane with a lamp behind it. Carl had a demented look in his eyes as he shoved his mic in the faces of the girls in front of the stage like it was a dick. (Big Jim Morrison fan. Later, he did a lot of acid and got into Captain Beefheart, about which more later.) I reconnected with him a couple of years ago and learned that the scene I just described was the first time he'd ever sung in public. Another time, I'd see him get pulled off stage for making fun of the gym teacher (who'd once made me run laps until I puked) when he started dancing with one of the girls. Needless to say, Carl was one of my heroes. When he moved from Bellport to Ronkonkoma in the early '70s, he fell in with a claque of musos that included the Duvall brothers and reedman Michael Maldonado.

Ken was something else entahrly. I was kind of in awe of him because he was reputed to have talked to Frank Zappa backstage once, and given him a tape, and auditioned for Captain Beefheart not once, but twice. I learned a Beefheart tune or two off a tape Ken had made with his buddy Bruce Crystal, another badass guitarist who looked a little like Hendrix (you can see his mug on the back of the Dog Truck LP sleeve, for which he did artwork but no playing). My last college roommate, besides schooling me on musical structure (up till then I was mainly into stealing licks off of records), had pulled my coat to Beefheart, spoonfeeding me Trout Mask Replica a track at a time, and very laboriously teaching me how to play "Kandy Korn" (the long Mirror Man version). I was muy impressed by the fact that his band back home could play that song, "Alice In Blunderland," and Zappa's "Orange County Lumber Truck."

When I asked Ken about Zappa and Beefheart a couple of years ago, he was suitably modest. He said he'd heard from a Zappa employee that the three-song demo he gave FZ in '72 wound up getting recorded over ("It was high quality tape"), and the copy of Dog Truck he sent Frank went right in the trash, unheard. Ken played for Beefheart in April of '75, during the Bongo Fury tour, and again in September of that year, after Beefheart had played the Knebworth festival in the UK. "He said he liked my playing, but I did not play very impressively, and I think he may have been lying just to be nice." Still, to my foolish and idolatrous teenage self, he'd been in the presence of gods, and had the cojones to play for 'em, to boot. (I think these stories say a lot about the divergent characters of Zappa and Beefheart. But perhaps I just read too much into things.)

More to the point, Ken and Richie Duvall were the kind of musos that scared the bejeezus out of me and my autodidact, blues-aping cohort. They could read music, and write charts. Kind of like the cats in the "Jazz Rock Ensemble" at our high school, but these guys were doing their own thing. On the Dog Truck record, Richie played drums, keys, alto sax, and bass, wrote all but two of the songs (he collaborated with bassist Bob Couillard on "Child's Play"), and sang the album's one vocal, on Ken's "Moons Never Spool." What keeps me coming back to Richie Duvall and Dog Truck is the way every one of the songs -- some of which feature multiple shifts of mood and tricky tempo changes -- has melodic or rhythmic bits that have insinuated their way into my consciousness (unlike too many records and shows where, after the fact, I'm left with a general impression of the sound, but no recall of the material).

"Berkeley" opens the proceedings with a moody theme played by the three-horn line (alto-trumpet-trombone) over a loping groove that features three chordal instruments (two guitars and electric piano). Richie's drums propel things nicely, and show a fondness for the kind of tumbling rolls lots of Long Island drummers seemed to like to play. On the modal "Caves," Doug Hunter kicks the traps while trumpeter Jeff Camp plays organ. Guitarist Don Shabner solos pointillistically, in the manner of lots of rock players of the time who were incorporating jazzy melodic ideas and phrasing while retaining a basis in blues.

"Child's Play" opens with a statement from Bob Martines' electric clarinet that employs speech-like rhythms, giving way to a frolicsome shuffle that alternates descending and ascending lines. Schabner's solo has a Martin Barre feel that makes me remember playing Jethro Tull's "Nothing Is Easy" when I was 18 and thinking it was jazz. The droning sustained feedback note behind the second iteration of the shuffle is taken up by the horns for a section in 6/8 that ends, Xenakis-like, in an ascending gliss, leading to a horn dialogue before the final descending run.

"Thank You" starts out with a groove that recalls the bass line from the Miracles' "Tears of a Clown," over which Ken Duvall solos in the manner of FZ circa Uncle Meat, replete with crazy intervallic leaps and idiosyncratic bends, before handing off to his brother on organ. A transitional section in 6/8 leads into a jazz waltz that features a Wayne Shorter-esque clarinet ride from Martines. Turning the record over, "Slap Your Knees" has the album's most "rockist" theme, the guitars playing a modified boogie against syncopated, stabbing organ chords. A hymn-like wash of organ inundates the track like a wave before the shuffle returns, closing with a six-note descending figure that I unconsciously (I swear!) emulated in the B section of a track on a recent recording project.

On the next couple of tunes, Richie plays both bass and drums (through the magic of overdubbing). "Girl At Water Show" has a theme that wouldn't have been out of place on Hot Rats, and features a nice trombone solo by Skip West that recalls both Chicago's James Pankow and FZ's Bruce Fowler. "Sun Tune" has what Ken describes as "that [Free] 'All Right Now' A chord," and a solo which he doesn't dig but I do, in which he endeavors to fill every interstice in the theme. Ken plays piano on "Classical," in between the Bach-like intro by the horns and Don Schabner's solo, which opens with octaves, giving way to bluesy bends and vibrato. Ken also wrote the closing "Moons Never Spool," on which Skip West again solos effectively, before Richie sings the dissonant melody, then solos on alto.

I love this music not only because it takes me back to a time and place, but also because it stands on its own merits, a reminder that local obscurities by developing artists can still provide a satisfying listen. Richie Duvall and Dog Truck is a rare bird; I've seen copies offered online for as little as a ten spot and as much as 40 bucks. Worthwhile if you dig vintage Traffic, Chicago Transit Authority, and Mothers of Invention. Highly recommended, even if you're not from Lawn Guyland.